Okay, so this isn’t the best the Coen Brothers have yet produced and I’d probably stop short of calling it a great movie, but O Brother Where Art Thou is still a lot of fun.
Based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey, this film follows the wild, surreal adventures of three escapees from a chain gang, Everett Ulysses McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), as they race to uncover buried treasure and escape the lawmen hot on their tail.
On route, they encounter a couple of standards from Greek mythology- three sirens and a cyclops (John Goodman doing his best Polemachus), a couple of American icons- bank robber "Babyface" Nelson and a thinly disguised Robert Johnson*, and a seemingly endless array of other quirky characters and outrageous situations.
It’s those characters, those situations and, probably unexpectedly for me, the joyous use of some purely American music in this film that makes it such fun to watch. The plot is a bit fractured and the ending skips a little, but single scenes- including some great musical numbers, go a long way in erasing the debit incurred by those faults. In a lot of ways the film works best as a variety show. A little song and dance here, a little comedy there and voila, you’re cooking with gas.
That said, it’s not for everyone. The music that I praise so highly, while newly produced and featuring some well known folks (Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris) is straight from the 1930s- early country, blues, folk, gospel and bluegrass. So if you’re not particular to that stuff, you might want to gnaw your own arm off by the end of the film. Also the small pleasures I derived from the oft vague references to Homer’s 2500+ year old poem might not work as well if your idea of antiquity is the 1980s.
Still, I figure it’s got enough of that Coen Brothers "thing" (which they’ve got in spades) going for it to warrant a look regardless. The dialogue is crisp as hell and terribly funny, Clooney looks to be having a great time the whole way, and the plot, even with its faults, is just to wild to ignore.
*In the film he’s called Tommy Johnson, but he’s a guitar player who’s recently sold his soul to the devil and bears a striking resemblance to the legendary bluesman, haircut, hat and all. I call ’em like I see ’em.
This review was originally published in Boston's Weekly Dig (now digBoston) in December 2000.